Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

The Case of the Shrinking Salamanders

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Amber Ellis

This year marked the hottest May and June in global record-keeping history, and it seems like salamanders across Appalachia are withering in the heat.

A June study in Global Change Biology found that climate change may be having a negative effect on six Appalachian salamander species. According to the study, spells of hotter, drier weather puts extra strain on the cold-blooded amphibians, requiring more energy for them to live and grow.

Appalachia boasts the greatest salamander diversity in the world, and their prevalence and abundance makes them an integral part of regional ecosystems. Their shrinking population means less food for birds and small mammals, and has the potential to disrupt the entire food chain.

Climate change may be impacting the human food chain as well, according to sustainability nonprofit Ceres. The organization released a study this June asserting that climate change puts U.S. corn production and, by extension, the entire national food system at risk.

Prevailing Politics Influence State Reactions to EPA Carbon Rule

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Brian Sewell

Flexibility: it’s the foundation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants.

“That’s what makes it ambitious, but achievable,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said when she unveiled the plan on June 2. “The glue that holds this plan together, and the key to making it work, is that each state’s goal is tailored to its own circumstances, and states have the flexibility to reach their goal in whatever way works best for them.”

But the politics surrounding federal climate action also vary widely among states. Two months after the plan’s release, some states are optimistic, touting how much carbon they have cut in recent years as a good start. Others are positioning themselves for a fight.

Changing Political Climates

With Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in office, Virginia could be the most amenable state in the region to the EPA’s efforts. Gov. McAuliffe announced his support for regulating carbon emissions late in his campaign and recently reinstated a 35-member state commission on climate change made up of elected officials, industry representatives, environmental advocates and scientists.

In North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s on-the-record comments about climate change are scant. He has claimed at various times that “there has always been climate change,” or that it is “out of our control.” But if actions speak louder than words, the McCrory administration’s approach is telling.

This year, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources removed documents about climate change from its website, including the state’s Climate Action Plan, which took dozens of experts years to research and compose.

Gov. McCrory also recently joined eight other Republican governors in penning a letter to President Obama that claims the EPA’s carbon rules would “largely dictate” the type of electric-generating facilities states could build and operate, and criticizes the president for seeking to “essentially ban coal from the U.S. energy mix.” Rather than suggesting improvements, the governors demand that the regulations be thrown out altogether.

Other Republican governors including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam were absent from that letter. While the Tennessee legislature is far from active on climate change, major cities in the state such as Nashville and Chattanooga have released their own climate action plans. And the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned utility that powers Tennessee and portions of six other states, expects its emissions to be half of what they were at their peak in 1995 by 2020, according to a statement released the day the EPA’s plan was announced.

In West Virginia and Kentucky, the second and third largest coal-producing states in the country, regulations that could negatively affect the coal industry elicitw particularly intense backlash. The two states recently joined a lawsuit against the EPA brought by coal CEO Bob Murray, who says the agency is lying to the American people about the existence of climate change.

The states claim that what the EPA is attempting “is nothing short of extraordinary” and that the agency wants to impose “double regulations” on coal plants since harmful pollutants other than greenhouse gases are already regulated under another section of the Clean Air Act. But the courts have repeatedly ruled that the EPA has the authority and obligation to regulate carbon pollution.

Earlier this year, Virginia passed legislation to require a cost-benefit analysis of regulating carbon dioxide. And West Virginia and Kentucky made laws directing state agencies to develop alternative standards and compliance schedules.

Regardless of how outspoken they are, state leaders opposing the EPA may be out of step with voters. According to a June poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 67 percent of Americans either strongly or somewhat support the EPA’s plan and 29 percent oppose it.

The EPA is expected to finalize the rule by June 2015 and states must submit their implementation plans by June 2016.

An activist is born

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Fend, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Feng, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of the carbon rule hearings at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., I stepped off the Metro full of anticipation for my first-ever public rally for any cause, let alone an environmental one.

I arrived at the Federal Triangle station slightly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings but, following the sounds of live music to the front of the building, I knew upon first glance that I had found my destination.

On the wide semi-circular lawn, children ran with toy replicas of wind turbines. People of many ethnicities and a range of ages stood chatting and putting the finishing touches on colorful posters. A woman and a young musician led a call-and-response demanding “Clean Energy Now.” And on the street, volunteers handed out Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I accepted a Moms Clean Air Force sticker from a helpful volunteer and hunted for more free items to show my support. Meanwhile, inside EPA headquarters, Hannah Wiegard and Jeff Feng from Appalachian Voices presented their testimony on the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and the need to take swift action to combat climate change.

Proudly sporting my “I Love Mountains” button, I was ready to hobnob with other Americans advocating for clean energy and climate action including lawyers, career environmental advocates, interns like me, and citizens who traveled great distances to appear before the EPA and raise their voices in support of cutting carbon pollution.

These are the people I surround myself with at home and at school, but I’ve often felt like somewhat of an imposter in their presence. I can’t talk knowledgeably about “carbon capture and sequestration” like they can. I waste far too much water, paper, gas, food and electricity. And this was my first-ever environmental rally. In these kinds of situations, my insecurities tend to build inside me like guilt and create a sense of otherness in my mind between myself and the people I admire and want to emulate.

But that morning, I felt immediately welcomed into the fold because just being there meant that I was contributing to the cause. Building grassroots support and demonstrating the power of people mark the beginnings of social and legislative change, as rally speakers such as Green Latino President Mark Magaña and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus impressed upon the crowd.

For me, catching the spirit and optimism of the rally has given greater clarity to both a collective vision of a clean energy future and what I can do as an individual to help us get there. It’s one thing to wear the pins and stickers; it’s another thing to feel empowered by your peers to take action and work toward a common goal. This sense of belonging is the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from the rally. The free sunglasses are pretty cool, too.

Is Obama’s Climate Action Plan on Track?

Friday, July 25th, 2014 - posted by Jeff Feng

“While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” – President Obama, June 2013

President Obama lays out his administration's Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama lays out his administration’s Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is pretty clear in establishing that if we don’t act now, our kids will be living on a different planet.

But since the release of his administration’s plan in June 2013, has Obama made strides in developing a clean energy economy and protecting the environment by fighting climate change?

Let’s take a look at his five-pronged approach to acting on climate: deploying clean energy; building a 21st-century transportation sector; cutting energy waste in homes, businesses, and factories; reducing other greenhouse gas emissions; and leading at the federal level.

First up is deploying clean energy. A major part of accomplishing this goal is first looking at power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first announced proposed carbon standards for new power plants in September 2013. Future power plants will have to adhere to these national carbon pollution limits. And just last month, the EPA made history by announcing the first-ever limits on carbon pollution for existing power plants.

Under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, states are given flexibility to meet individual emissions targets with an overall goal of cutting carbon pollution nationally by 30 percent below 2005 levels. Electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar doubled during Obama’s first term, but the Clean Power Plan needs to continue the momentum. With that in mind, Obama hopes to redouble electricity generated through wind and solar by 2020. Utility-scale renewable energy is becoming more of a reality even with the reasonable, perhaps conservative guidelines of the Clean Energy Plan.

Seeing as it is 2014, Obama also wants to build a 21st-century transportation sector. The EPA and DOT are working to update heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards by March 2016. Implementing standards for heavy duty vehicles would build on the benefits of the fuel economy standards set in 2011, cutting emissions by 270 million metric tons and saving 530 million barrels of oil. Commercial trucks, vans, and buses are the second biggest polluters in the transportation sector, presumably behind passenger vehicles. Speaking of passenger vehicles, fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles now require an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

It seems like carbon dioxide has stolen the show, but what about other greenhouse gas emissions? What’s being done to stop hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from doubling by 2020 and tripling by 2030? Who’s working to make sure methane levels that don’t increase to the equivalent of 620 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030 (despite the fact that, since 1990, U.S. methane emissions have dropped by 11 percent)?

HFCs were used to phase out ozone destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and are found in refrigerators and air conditioners. While HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, they have a high global-warming potential and are sometimes referred to as “super greenhouse gases.” Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is working to ban the most detrimental HFCs and develop suitable replacements.

The federal government’s plan to reduce methane emissions also takes a multifaceted approach. Just last month, the EPA announced its plans to strengthen air pollution standards for new municipal solid waste facilities, the third largest source of methane emissions, by requiring them to capture 13 percent more landfill gas than previously dictated. Under the EPA’s plan, landfills would need to capture two-thirds of methane and air toxin emissions by 2023. To cut methane emissions from agricultural operations, the second largest source of the potent greenhouse gase, the USDA, EPA, and DOE released their “Biogas Roadmap” of voluntary suggestions to implement methane digesters. Apparently using a bottom-up approach in going from lower to higher emitters, the EPA has yet to build on voluntary programs in the oil and gas industry, which is the largest source of methane emissions. Methane regulations may be considered later this year, but would not be finalized until the end of 2016.

On to cutting energy waste in homes, businesses and factories. Ideally, we’d all want energy that’s both reliable and affordable. Groups like Appalachian Voices have demonstrated that energy efficiency is both the cleanest and most cost-effective method to reduce pollution, grow our economy by creating thousands of jobs, and save money for families and businesses.

The Climate Action Plan and the Better Buildings Initiative imagine that commercial and industrial buildings will be 20 percent more efficient by 2020. In Obama’s first term, DOE and HUD helped more than two million homes become energy efficient. The DOE is also finalizing conservation standards for appliances and equipment that would help customers save more. Finally, the USDA recently announced it would allocate approximately $250 million to developing energy efficiency and renewable energy for commercial and residential customers in rural areas.

By virtue of all the stakeholders mentioned above, President Obama believes the federal government must lead the charge towards a cleaner future. Last year, he signed a Presidential Memorandum dictating renewable sources make up 20 percent of the federal government’s electricity by 2020. By working with the U.S. military and other federal agencies, he hopes to lead by example and prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey plans to spend $13.1 million to develop three-dimensional mapping data to respond to weather disasters. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs is allocating $10 million to teach tribes ways to adapt to climate change.

Even with these initiatives, the road to energy efficiency and clean energy won’t be easy. Considering that Obama’s Climate Action Plan was announced just last year, historic work is starting to move the United States to a sustainable and stable environment. It’s a start, but we certainly have miles to go.

’80s Flashback: Dr. Hansen’s carbon dioxide warning

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014 - posted by molly
Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2013 International Energy Outlook

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2013 International Energy Outlook

Twenty-six years ago today, Dr. James Hansen of NASA told a Congressional committee that the space agency was 99 percent certain that the global warming trend had a clear culprit: gases, such as carbon dioxide, from man-made sources.

As The New York Times reported at the time:

“Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming,” Dr. Hansen said at the hearing today, adding, “It is already happening now.”

Between 1988 and today, the Billboard hits may have changed from Guns N’ Roses to Katy Perry, but Dr. Hansen’s warning is still playing on repeat.

Scientists at the 1988 hearing called for a sharp reduction in the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide, and recommended “a vigorous program of reforestation” to absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere. Instead, global carbon emissions have risen from about 20,000 tons to more than 30,000 tons (see the change here) while deforestation has dramatically accelerated.

In a classic case of better-late-than-never, however, America is finally beginning to address its carbon dioxide emissions. As we describe in the current issue of The Appalachian Voice, the Supreme Court gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate climate-altering gases back in 2007. This month the EPA proposed the first limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that existing power plants can emit. Since these power plants are responsible for 40 percent of nationwide carbon dioxide emissions, the EPA’s proposals would go a long way toward curbing climate change and advancing clean energy.

So, 26 years from now will we look back on Dr. Hansen’s warning and regret that we failed to act? Or will we be grateful that in 2014 we finally took action to lessen the impacts of climate change and promote a sustainable energy future? The choice is ours, though we’re probably stuck with the chart-topping hits of the ‘80s regardless.

> Tell the EPA you support strong carbon pollution limits for existing power plants
> Learn more about carbon pollution and climate change
> Read about how the proposed rules could affect your state

What does EPA’s carbon rule mean for your state?

Friday, June 13th, 2014 - posted by Ryan Murphy
The EPA's interactive "Where You Live" tool summarizes climate change impacts and state actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA’s interactive “Where You Live” tool summarizes climate change impacts and state actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon pollution from power plants nationwide. Specifically, the plan seeks to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels. A new tool on the EPA’s website allows users to see how their state will be affected by the federal effort.

The tool is a clickable map that shows a particular state’s carbon emissions in millions of metric tons and the percentage of those emissions which came from fossil fuel-fired power plants. This is calculated into an emission rate that is expressed as “pounds per megawatt hours.” The EPA’s tool presents its yearly emissions calculations as such:

1. Millions of metric tons of carbon emitted by the state
2. Amount of energy produced by the state (presented in terawatt hours, each of which is equal to one million megawatt hours)
3. A combination of the two previous factors (pounds per megawatt hours): This demonstrates how many pounds of carbon are emitted for every megawatt hour of energy produced by a power plant, or how much carbon dioxide is released to meet that state’s energy demand.

The table below shows 2012 emissions levels of five central and southern Appalachian states and the amount of carbon pollution those states will need to cut under EPA’s proposed plan.

A table of carbon emissions and coal's share of electricity generation in five central and southern Appalachian states. Click to enlarge.

A table of carbon emissions and coal’s share of electricity generation in five central and southern Appalachian states. Click to enlarge.

What accounts for the differences in emissions? For example, Virginia released 861 fewer pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour than Kentucky in 2012.

That’s where another feature of this tool comes in: each state’s profile features a pie graph of different energy sources and their share of a state’s overall generation.

Kentucky derived an enormous 92 percent of its energy from coal in 2012. Virginia derived only 20 percent of its energy from coal. The majority of the Old Dominion’s energy comes from nuclear (40 percent) and, a close second, natural gas (35 percent).

Burning coal releases more carbon than any other energy source, so it makes sense that those states which use the highest percentages of coal also release the highest amount of carbon.

This carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere and aggravates climate change. A significant reduction in these emissions seeks not only to mitigate climate change but also to reduce pollutants that can cause asthma and other health problems.

Each state must develop a plan to meet these lower carbon emission goals. In an ideal world, these states would make a seamless transition to cleaner forms of energy. They could remain energy-based economies by becoming clean energy-based economies.

It remains to be seen how the coal industry’s influence will affect the implementation of this rule by Appalachian states. But considering the fact that as much as 95 percent of a single state’s energy can come from coal, the EPA’s plan could have a significant effect on Appalachia as states are given federal impetus to curtail carbon emissions, and, implicitly, coal consumption.

Virginians applaud new federal carbon pollution protections

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by cat

Business, health, farming, and national security leaders praise Environmental Protection Agency for protecting state

virginia-voicesRepresentatives of Virginia business, national security, health and agricultural sectors joined environmental advocates this week in praising the newly announced carbon pollution limits for existing power plants as necessary public health and security safeguards, and a beneficial economic driver.

The new EPA guidelines give states the flexibility to implement strategies that can increase energy efficiency and improve resiliency while reducing this harmful air pollutant. The local leaders called on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to lead a robust and inclusive process for developing a bold state plan to implement the new standards in Virginia.

David Belote, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, Virginia Beach:
“Anyone looking for a job in Virginia today wants to be in a growth industry. Reducing carbon pollution and growing our clean energy sector unlocks the doors to the new opportunities that Virginia’s businesses and workers have been looking for. Promoting clean energy and climate security isn’t a ‘war’ on anybody – it’s unleashing innovators and entrepreneurs to profit while improving the planet and the lives of its people.”

Dr. Anthony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures, Staunton:
“The proposed new carbon pollution standards represent a big step toward moving Virginia’s economy to cleaner fuel sources. “Retiring old and inefficient coal-fired power plants with solar and wind power will give more Virginians access to 21st century energy jobs, and the ability to enjoy healthier air and water.”

Dr. Christine Llewellyn, physician and radiologist, Williamsburg:
“We know that climate change is already occurring, but we also know that we still have time to prevent the most severe impacts if we act now to reduce carbon emissions. Policies such as the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards are an essential first step towards protecting the future for our children and grandchildren. These policies will not only reduce dangerous carbon pollution, but will also have other major health benefits.”

Tenley Weaver, owner and operator of Good Food – Good People, Floyd:
“When weather extremes get more uncertain, your regional food security is even more at risk. Climate disruption heaps costs on the shoulders of our farmers and threatens to put some of them out of business. The EPA’s initiative to limit carbon pollution is an essential step toward addressing the global warming crisis and its impacts, especially on organically grown local food crops.”

Acting on Climate: EPA unveils carbon rule for existing power plants

Monday, June 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian
The EPA's plan to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

The EPA’s plan to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate. Photo licensed under Creative Commons

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced a plan today to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

The highly anticipated plan is “part of the ongoing story of energy progress in America,” McCarthy said in a rousing speech that covered the host of risks, and opportunities, that come with a changing climate. Not neglecting the significant role coal and natural gas will continue to play in America’s power sector, McCarthy said the plan “paves a more certain path forward for conventional fuels in a carbon constrained world.”

The rule provides states flexibility to meet required reductions — a framework the McCarthy says makes the plan “ambitious but also achievable.” It will likely lead to an increased reliance on less carbon-intensive fuels than coal, including natural gas and nuclear energy, which McCarthy mentioned several times during the announcement. But it should also be a precursor to unprecedented investments in clean energy, deployment of renewable energy sources and the adoption of programs to significantly improve energy efficiency nationwide.

Every American city, town and community stands to benefit from cutting carbon pollution, and Appalachia and the Southeast have abundant opportunities to move beyond both a historical over-reliance on coal, and the destructive methods used to extract it.

Act now to support a strong carbon rule that incentivizes renewable energy development and clean energy jobs for Appalachia.

“Appalachia has traditionally borne the brunt of the damage from the nation’s coal-dependent economy and is suffering the health impacts and environmental and economic devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining and related industrial practices,” said Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

“Energy efficiency is the quickest, cheapest and most equitable way to meet our energy needs while reducing carbon, and it’s a tremendous unexploited opportunity in the Southeast,” Cormons said. “Strong efficiency programs will also boost economic prosperity, creating thousands of jobs. This is especially important in many parts of Appalachia where good jobs are scarce, and lower household incomes preclude too many from the benefits an energy-efficient home.”

Charting the decline in carbon emissions from energy consumption. Graphic by  New York Times using Energy Information Administration data.

Charting the decline in carbon emissions from energy consumption. Graphic by New York Times using Energy Information Administration data

Opposition to the plan will be fierce. You’ve probably noticed that some of coal’s staunchest supporters, the National Mining Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, are already attempting to take the EPA to task for what they say will harm the economy and make little more than a dent in carbon emissions on a global scale.

The EPA is sure to be challenged in court. Luckily, the rule’s legality, in a broad sense, is almost as unambiguous as the science that compelled the Obama administration to take action in the first place.

Tell the EPA you support a strong rule to boost clean energy and cut carbon pollution.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to treat greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants, enabling it to use the Clean Air Act to place limits on them. Then, in 2011, the high court issued a ruling in American Electric Power v. Connecticut that essentially requires the EPA to regulate carbon pollution from power plants.

Even Congress, albeit a past session, deserves a bit of credit. It was the enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that gave the federal government the authority, and the responsibility, to regulate pollutants that it has determined endanger public health and welfare. So

Overall, carbon emissions in the U.S. have declined since peaking in 2007 due to many factors including an economic slump, greater energy efficiency and a growing share of electricity generation coming from natural gas, falling about 12 percent between 2005 and 2012, before climbing 2 percent last year.

But we’re still dumping billions of tons of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. And until a rule for existing plants is implemented, the nation’s fleet of more than 600 coal-fired facilities will face no cap on carbon pollution. Today’s announcement sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate.

Stay tuned for more of our coverage of the rule. In the meantime, read “Confronting Carbon Pollution” in The Appalachian Voice and visit Appalachian Voices’ carbon & climate pages.

Get Ready: Confronting Carbon Pollution

Friday, May 30th, 2014 - posted by molly
Smokestacks at Riverbend Steam Station

Duke Energy’s Riverbend Steam Plant in Gaston County, N.C., was retired in April 2013; the utility said the plant, which began operating in 1929, was rarely used. Photo by Sandra Diaz

From big newspapers to political blogs, the media is buzzing in anticipation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule aimed to reduce climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s existing power plants, which are expected to be unveiled on Monday. For environmental news junkies like us, this is the equivalent of the Super Bowl pre-game show.

The latest issue of The Appalachian Voice is joining the fray. In this issue, we take a look at how and why the EPA is taking on carbon pollution, and what the much-anticipated rule could mean for Appalachia and the Southeast. The full online edition will be available next week, but if you’re eager to learn more in advance of Monday’s announcement you can read the story Confronting Carbon Pollution here.

President Obama is rumored to be presenting the rules himself on Monday, signaling his strong endorsement of the EPA’s efforts to rein in carbon emissions from existing power plants. And it seems like Americans as a whole are ready to support the move. In a Yale University poll conducted in April, 64 percent of Americans favor setting strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired plants, while 35 percent oppose.

The Washington Post explains the expected carbon regulations this way:

The EPA plan resembles proposals made by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which would allow states and companies to employ a variety of ­measures — including new ­renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects “outside the fence,” or away from the power-plant site — to meet their carbon-reduction target. While the overall target may fall slightly short of what environmentalists have pressed for, the approach is in line with their push to make major cuts in greenhouse gases while seeking to soften the impact on consumer electricity prices.

In some ways, next week’s big announcement is really just the beginning. As we describe in The Appalachian Voice:

The public will have until September to comment on the proposal, and by June 2015 the EPA will finalize its guidelines. States will have until June 30, 2016, to submit their plans for achieving the needed reductions, and the EPA will have until the end of 2016 to review each state’s plan. If all goes according to the administration’s agenda, by the time Obama’s term ends in January 2017 the nation will be on its way to lower carbon emissions — provided the rules withstand the lawsuits that industry groups and coal-friendly states are likely to file.

The carbon rules follow two recent Supreme Court rulings that affirmed the EPA’s authority to regulate harmful pollutants under the Clean Air Act. In an article for Grist, Ben Adler writes that the expected proposal was built for resilience:

The state-based plan was devised to withstand the inevitable political and legal challenges. “We wanted an approach that would pass legal scrutiny, making conservative assumptions about the law, technology, and economics,” says [Natural Resources Defense Council Director of Climate Programs David] Hawkins. “We wanted our model not to be subject to the criticism that ‘You used a harebrained model that only a hippie could love.’”

The formal comment process is just one side of what’s sure to be a hotly contested issue, with a variety of opportunities for public debate. Expect to see strong words from environmental and public health advocates as well as fossil fuel interests, with groups such as Appalachian Voices encouraging states to meet these carbon reduction goals through energy efficiency and renewable sources, and utilities that prefer the status quo preparing to ramp up natural gas production.

We’ll be following the issue closely here on the Front Porch Blog, and in The Appalachian Voice. Read our Confronting Carbon Pollution feature story here, and learn more about carbon and climate change here.

Confronting Carbon Pollution

Friday, May 30th, 2014 - posted by Carvan

By Molly Moore

Six months after declaring “climate change is a fact,” in his State of the Union address, President Obama prepared to unveil what The New Yorker calls “the policy centerpiece of his second term.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines that he was poised to announce at press time will put in motion state and federal policies that could determine whether the nation moves toward climate security and cleaner sources of power or sits on the sidelines as the seas rise.

Climate change is expected to decrease water availability in the Southeast. Above, drought conditions transform Fontana Lake, N.C., in summer 2007. Photo by Ryan Rasmussen, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Climate change is expected to decrease water availability in the Southeast. Above, drought conditions transform Fontana Lake, N.C., in summer 2007. Photo by Ryan Rasmussen, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

“When our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy,” Obama told Congress and the nation, “I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

The Case Against Carbon

The EPA currently limits emissions of air pollutants such as mercury and other pollutants associated with producing electricity, but as the agency moves to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide that existing coal-fired power plants can release into the atmosphere, it is grappling with arguably its most significant challenge yet.

Carbon dioxide is a fundamental building block of life on Earth, but it’s also king among the gases that have an overall warming effect on the planet. These greenhouse gases act somewhat like the plastic shield on a greenhouse, holding the heat from the sun’s rays close to Earth instead of letting it bounce freely back into space. Of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities in the U.S., carbon dioxide comprises 82 percent. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is about 40 percent greater than it was in the mid-1700s before the industrial era began. Essentially, the greenhouse barrier is getting thicker and the Earth is getting warmer.

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. EPA

Click to see larger image. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Global scientific consensus links the sharp rise in carbon to a host of climate projections. According to the National Climate Assessment, a report released in May by a consortium of experts assembled by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, prominent impacts in the Southeast will include sea level rise, more extreme heat events and decreased water availability.

The federal government began to seriously connect carbon dioxide emissions to climate change in the late 1970s, but there has been scant political action. In 2009, President Obama pledged that the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 if other economically powerful countries made similar commitments. When the Senate failed to ratify the “cap and trade” carbon bill in 2010, the president was prompted to pursue a method of addressing climate change that relies on executive powers instead of Congress.

The EPA wasn’t always in favor of regulating carbon dioxide. In 2007, under President George W. Bush, the EPA attempted to deny its authority to address greenhouse gases. But the Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that the agency would be obligated to regulate greenhouse gases if it determined that the pollutants endangered public health and welfare. When the Obama administration began in 2009, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson declared that greenhouse gases did pose risks to the public.

“The science on whether or not these gases are pollutants is clear,” Jackson said during a 2009 interview with Time magazine. “As the endangerment finding says, in both magnitude and probability climate change is an enormous problem.”

Those risks, according to the National Climate Assessment, include “increasingly frequent, intense, and longer-lasting extreme heat, which worsens drought, wildfire, and air pollution risks; increasingly frequent extreme precipitation, intense storms, and changes in precipitation patterns that lead to drought and ecosystem changes; and rising sea levels that intensify coastal flooding and storm surge.” Summertime levels of harmful ground-level ozone could rise by as much as 70 percent by 2050 if emissions are left unchecked, reports a study published this May in Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. Analysts project that humans will contend with troubles such as escalating asthma and allergy rates, more heat-related illness and death, a rise in insect-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease, and challenges to the food system due to drought.

With a clear link established between public health and safety and climate change, the EPA began limiting greenhouse gas emissions in 2011 by finalizing fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks and buses. The agency also said it would focus on regulating the largest industrial polluters — those responsible for roughly 70 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions — and avoid limiting small businesses. With fossil-fuel power plants responsible for 40 percent of nationwide carbon dioxide emissions, it was clear that the electricity sector would be affected.

In September 2013 the EPA announced its intention to limit the amount of carbon dioxide that can be released by new and current power plants.

Policy Prescriptions

The EPA’s authority to regulate both new and existing power plants leans on a section of the Clean Air Act, but the act prescribes different ways for handling future versus current facilities.

The agency is given more top-down authority when it comes to new facilities and is able to set federal carbon emissions standards for all new power plants. Last January the EPA released its proposed standards for new power plants — the public was able to comment on the draft standards until early May, and the rules are scheduled to be finalized this coming winter.

Smokestacks at Riverbend Steam Station

Duke Energy’s Riverbend Steam Plant in Gaston County, N.C., was retired in April 2013; the utility said the plant, which began operating in 1929, was rarely used. Political analysts suggest that outlining a strong plan for reducing its own carbon emissions could give the United States added leverage at the 2015 international climate change conference in Paris. Photo by Sandra Diaz

By capping the amount of carbon dioxide a coal-fired power plant can emit at 1,100 pounds per megawatt-hour, the rules are pushing utilities to instead use zero-emission renewables, energy efficiency improvements or natural gas. Utilities could also deploy carbon capture and storage technology to capture carbon emissions and contain them underground. The new technology, however, has not been used on a commercial scale; coal industry supporters say it’s too expensive and environmental advocates counter that utilities just haven’t had any incentives to make the switch.

Unsurprisingly, coal and utility groups are decrying the carbon standards for new power plants as an attack on the electricity industry, while environmental and public health organizations are applauding the move. “The whole point of these regulations is to discourage carbon, to make it unprofitable to create electricity with a lot of carbon,” David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said on The Diane Rehm Show, “And so we’ll see technologies that allow companies, electric utilities to squeeze more energy out, more electricity out with less carbon [polluting the air].”

As the standards for new power plants move forward, the process for existing ones is just beginning. Because it can be more expensive to change the way existing facilities work, the EPA has a different, more flexible method for devising new air pollution standards for already-established power plants. In this scenario, regulators first issue general guidelines that outline what the end carbon-reduction goals should be. Once those goals are established, the states devise their own plans for meeting the targets and submit their plans to the EPA for approval.

Obama himself is expected to announce the EPA’s proposed guidelines for carbon emissions from existing power plants at the beginning of June. The public will have until September to comment on the proposal, and by June 2015 the EPA will finalize its guidelines. States will have until June 30, 2016, to submit their plans for achieving the needed reductions, and the EPA will have until the end of 2016 to review each state’s plan. If all goes according to the administration’s agenda, by the time Obama’s term ends in January 2017 the nation will be on its way to lower carbon emissions — provided the rules withstand the lawsuits that industry groups and coal-friendly states are likely to file.

Carbon Standards and the Southeast

Regional supporters of energy efficiency and renewable energy, along with public health and environmental advocates, are watching closely to see how the EPA guidelines influence the Southeast’s overall energy mix.

Mary Shaffer Gill, president of the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association and vice president of Aries Energy, LLC, says the EPA guidelines are coming at an opportune time, as solar industry groups are talking with the Tennessee Valley Authority about how the federal utility can integrate more solar power into its energy portfolio. “The next two years are going to be very critical in developing long-term solar policy and bigger-picture lofty goals, making sure we’re seeing positive policy for our industry,” she says.

At the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, Policy Associate Abby Schwimmer says that investing in energy efficiency puts states in a position of strength and preparedness, regardless of how the carbon rule and other federal regulations pan out.

Public health officials are also watching. Among other ills, carbon emissions can be directly and indirectly tied to North Carolina’s high rate of pediatric asthma, says Gayatri Ankem of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, a branch of the advocacy organization Clean Air Carolina. Citing the host of health consequences associated with higher ozone and pollen levels, changing weather patterns, and more severe storms, Ankem says that addressing carbon emissions will strike at the core of these problems.

Despite the known health concerns, those most at risk from poor air quality and the impacts of climate change have been underrepresented in the policy-making process, says Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative.

Nearly 78 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, she says, and African-Americans are hospitalized for asthma at a rate three times as often. She notes that low-income communities and communities of color near power plants pay a cost for “cheap” energy in terms of attention problems linked to lead exposure, asthma attacks, and lost work and school days due to poor air quality.

ACEEE energy efficiency scenario chart

Click to enlarge // The most affordable way for states to reduce carbon emissions is simply by using electricity more efficiently, according to advocates such as the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. By pursuing four energy-efficiency policies such as adopting stricter national building codes and setting state energy efficiency targets, the group reports that “an emissions standard set at 26% below 2012 levels can be achieved at no net cost to the economy.” The ACEEE report finds that adopting their recommended policies is attainable and would cost states less than their business-as-usual approach to meeting electricity demand, reduce pollution, and create 611,000 new jobs.

When it comes to the damages caused by flooding and severe storms, Patterson explains, pre-existing socio-political factors such as housing quality and homeownership affect how poor, elderly and minority residents are impacted by disasters. Displaced residents might be eligible for hotel reimbursements, for example, but such assistance doesn’t help those who can’t afford the upfront cost of lengthy hotel stays. “The marginalized get even further marginalized in disasters,” she says.

For Patterson, the policy details the EPA and states will grapple with during the coming years will have a tangible effect, both by reducing the amount of pollution that harms communities near power plants and by shifting the environmental and public health costs of carbon to fossil fuel companies.

“By putting in carbon pollution standards, it levels who’s paying the costs by [making it] the responsibility of energy companies instead of letting them live high off the hog while others are choking on pollution,” she says.